Austin Butler as Elvis Presley, country rock guitarist and singer
Shreveport, Louisiana, January 1955
Release Date: June 23, 2022
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Costume Designer: Catherine Martin
Tailor: Gloria Bava
Elvis Presley was born 88 years ago today on January 8, 1935. Little introduction is needed for the King of Rock and Roll, who remains one of the most significant cultural figures of the last century even nearly 50 years after this death. Several movies have been made about Presley’s life and musical career, the most recent being the highly publicized Elvis, released last year with an astounding and immersive lead performance by Austin Butler that has been touted as a likely contender for an Academy Award.
Some audiences were polarized by director and co-writer Baz Lurhmann’s signature spectacle or by Tom Hanks playing Presley’s financially abusive manager Colonel Tom Parker like a bloated Bond villain (though others have argued this is exactly who Parker was), but Austin Butler’s portrayal of the King has been almost universally acclaimed, including praise from Presley’s wife Priscilla and daughter Lisa Marie. An Instagram post from the latter commended how Butler “channeled and embodied my father’s heart and soul beautifully. In my humble opinion, his performance is unprecedented and FINALLY done accurately and respectfully.”
Elvis‘ narrative focuses most directly on the tense relationship between the singer and Colonel Tom, a shady promoter whom we meet while representing tired country acts like Hank Snow (David Wenham) until Snow’s own son Jimmie Rodgers Snow (Kodi Smit-McPhee) excitedly plays Elvis’ first hit single, “That’s All Right”. The opportunistic Parker knows a gold mine when he hears it and sets out to catch Presley’s upcoming performance at KWKH radio’s “Louisiana Hayride”, which biographer Peter Guralnick describes as “the [Grand Ole] Opry’s more innovative rival in Shreveport.”
Presley had started performing at the Hayride in October 1954, just two weeks after his Opry debut, though Elvis includes some of the circumstances from his first appearance into the January 21, 1955 show depicted in Elvis where Parker first laid eyes on the singer in person and observes the sensational effect he and his trademark wiggle has on the crowd in attendance—specifically its younger female audience and the “feelings they were not sure they should enjoy.”
What’d He Wear?
Costume designer Catherine Martin explained in a call with Financial Times that, of the approximately 93 costume changes that Austin Butler went through as Elvis, the most substantial challenge was “finding that 1950s look that encapsulated Elvis’ rebelliousness and sexuality at that watershed moment—and then allowing Austin’s performance to fit his version of Elvis, rather than slavishly copying the originals.”
By the film’s chronology, Butler’s Elvis first takes the stage at the Louisiana Hayride in a suit that’s predominantly hot pink, a power color for the star who long idolized a pink Cadillac as a mark of success and which stands out among the drabber traditional country duds of his fellow musicians and presenters.
It has been well-documented that, especially in these early years of his career, the real Elvis Presley had favored pink and black clothing. This was mentioned by my friend Gary Wells, who published a thoughtful review of Elvis on his excellent blog Vintage Leisure by SoulRide and also directed me to the official site of Elvis’ backing guitarist Scotty Moore, which shares that—during the January 22, 1955 performance—a fan in attendance named Nick Gulli snapped a rare 35mm color photograph of the King wearing a vibrant pink suit and black shirt similar to how Butler dresses for the same concert in Elvis.
“The pink suit is a combination of this very drapey, fabulous wool fabric with a very specific soft, almost cardigan-like feel in the jacket,” Martin explained to Jazz Tangcay for Variety. “One of the interesting things about ’50s suiting is there was a lot of texture, a lot more texture than we have today,” she elaborated to Vanity Fair. “And that was really hard because you just spend your time looking through tailoring fabric books just hoping that you’re gonna find something that’s gonna match or fit what you want.”
Much as he often did in real life, Elvis depicts the eponymous singer and future style icon staring into the windows of Lansky Bros., a clothier on Memphis’ famous Beale Street that has capitalized on its connection to both Elvis the man and Elvis the movie. It’s in the Lansky Bros. storefront where Butler’s Presley admires the distinctively detailed pink suit he would eventually purchase and wear for this stage appearance on the Louisiana Hayride.
The jacket is less a traditional suit jacket and more a rockabilly evolution of the “Hollywood jacket” or “loafer jacket” style that was most popular through the 1940s and ’50s, a precursor to the oft-reviled ’70s leisure suit. Traditionally unstructured with a loose fit, this style of jacket would comfortably serve the range of motion Elvis needed for his gyrating performances.
The fabric is primarily the hot-pink wool gabardine as cited by Martin, with a contrasting charcoal shoulder yoke that runs straight across the back and chest with subtle white streaking. The edges are piped in a matching streaked charcoal, running continuously around the narrow camp collar, down the front on each side, and around the ventless back.
The single-breasted jacket has three black buttons, which Elvis wears completely unbuttoned for this first appearance… making it a little easier for the women in the front row to pull it off of him!
The sleeves are roped at the shoulders and loose through most of the arms but shirred at the wrists, where they’re gathered under each turnback (gauntlet) cuff, trimmed around the edge in charcoal and fastened with two black buttons arranged side-by-side, more like a shirt than a suit jacket. The only exterior pockets are a jetted pocket on each hip.
“Along with making reproductions of costumes or outfits that Elvis wore, Baz was also focused on how his costumes reflected his sexuality, his rebelliousness, and created a kind of wildfire among his fans,” Martin explained to Vanity Fair. “Like for instance, the lace shirts. Elvis in the mid-’50s wore a lot of lace shirts in different colors, and that kind of connected to what we know as kind of rock star today and also that interesting juxtaposition of the feminine and the masculine. Similarly, Elvis’s favorite color combination was black and pink. So finding a way of incorporating that and to be true to the boxy nature of the ’50s look, but at the same time, respect the body underneath.”
Elvis cycles through several similarly styled lace shirts during the scenes set across the mid-1950s, including a burgundy shirt while recording his first Sun Records single in ’54 and a pink lace shirt while mulling over the “New Elvis” controversy in the summer of ’56. As Martin shared, these were a staple of the real Presley’s wardrobe, like a white custom-made shirt that he was photographed wearing in the ’50s and later gave to his aunt before it was auctioned.
Under the pink-and-black suit, he wears a black lace shirt with a narrow collar. The tight and short sleeves and open lace—with no undershirt—both serve Martin’s stated purpose to “respect the body underneath”.
- Abercrombie & Fitch Textural Button-Through Sweater Polo in black cotton/viscose/nylon (A&F,
- ASOS Design Skinny Fit Lace Shirt in black (ASOS,
$18currently out of stock)
The trousers are solid hot-pink to match the suit, with an era-appropriate high-rise to Butler’s natural waist that work with the pleat-enhanced full fit to make his stage movements as “Elvis the Pelvis” more effective.
“Obviously his pants were important, and it was a lot about the drape, how the fabric worked,” Martin explained to Vanity Fair. “In these pants—that we coined the ‘squirrel pants’, because that’s one of the insults that was leveled at Elvis—it’s really about the balance of the back and front. More fullness in the front, how much pleat you have, where the pleats fall at the front, whether you move them more in towards the fly or you bring them more out towards the pocket. Our pants were quite bun-hugging at the back. That’s one of the specialties of our tailor Gloria Bava—she likes a nice bottom. And then it’s allowing enough fullness in the front so that you could get all that shake. And then we pegged the legs, as it’s called. So they narrowed toward the shoe. There’s more air in the top of the leg than there is at the bottom. And basically the pegging allows the top to move, but there’s a kind of anchor at the bottom.”
As Martin describes, the legs are very full through the hips and down to the knees, before they taper down to the plain-hemmed bottoms. Each side pocket opening aligns with the seam running down each side. The single reverse-facing pleats align with the first belt loop on each side of the fly. Elvis’ narrow belt is striped in bands of black, white, pink, and black that unites his sartorial palette, with black leather ends that buckle through a silver-toned single-prong buckle which he pulls off to the left.
Guralnick described the real Elvis’ clothing for his first Louisiana Hayride appearance on October 16, 1954 as “a typical black and pink outfit,” more specifically “a pink jacket, white pants, a black shirt, a brightly colored clip-on bow tie, and the kind of two-tone shoes that were known as correspondent shoes, because they were the kind that a snappy salesman or a correspondent in a divorce case might be expected to wear.” This two-colored footwear can also be known as spectator shoes.
Butler’s Elvis appropriately strides onto the stage in a pair of black-and-white leather cap-toe spectator oxfords, with the straight toe-caps, round laces and five-eyelet lace panels, and soles all black while the remaining vamp is white calf. The full break of his trouser bottoms tend to cover his hosiery, but Elvis’ frantic stage movements flash his lighter pink cotton lisle socks.
Later in ’55, Elvis joins Colonel Tom Parker on tour with Hank Snow, cycling through a few of his rockabilly outfits including this same suit seen in a brief vignette now worn with black-and-white penny loafers rather than lace-up oxfords.
- Cole Haan Men's American Classics Penny Loafer in black spectator (Cole Haan, $150)
- G.H. Bass Men's Larson Baz Penny Loafers in black/white (Bloomingdale's, $135) (The "Baz" nomenclature can be no accident, right?)
- G.H. Bass Men's Larson Leather Penny Loafers in black/white (Nordstrom, $124-$175)
- Walk London Riva Penny Loafers in black/white (ASOS, $108)
The early 1955 Elvis has yet to adopt any of his extravagant jewelry or rings, simply wearing a plain stainless steel wristwatch on a black leather strap.
How to Get the Look
Elvis dazzles the audience—and his future manager—with not only a unique style of performing but also his totally individual way of dressing, in a rockabilly-styled pink loafer suit, black lace shirt, and spectator shoes, a relatively(!) subdued precursor to the bedazzled jumpsuits that would define his stage looks of the ’70s.
- Black lace short-sleeved shirt with narrow collar
- Hot-pink wool gabardine three-button loafer jacket with charcoal-trimmed edges and contrasting shoulder yoke, narrow camp collar, 2-button turnback cuffs, straight jetted hip pockets, and ventless back
- Hot-pink wool gabardine high-waisted single reverse-pleated trousers with belt loops, straight/on-seam side pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms
- Black, white, pink, and black-striped narrow belt with black leather ends and silver-toned single-prong buckle
- Black-and-white calf leather 5-eyelet cap-toe spectator oxford shoes
- Light-pink cotton lisle socks
- Stainless steel wristwatch on black leather strap
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
I’m all geared up.